We need to be aware that many of our Muslim friends come from different cultures and we would do well if we carefully observe and sensitively enquire in our given situation what may be done or said so that we may not unwittingly offend our Muslim friends.
How should I respond to differences in culture?
The Gospel is supra-cultural; no-one needs to change their culture in order to comprehend the Gospel. In its beginnings it was embedded in a culture and later was expressed in other cultural forms without losing its content. No concessions may be made regarding the content of the biblical faith but we have no right to impose our traditional cultural behaviour on to others. There is a cautionary need to make a clear distinction between the form and its content.
How can I differentiate between culture and the religion of Islam?
Sometimes what we consider cultural forms may well be Islamic in content. Care needs to be taken that we do not absorb Islamic content believing it to be culture as this may lead to syncretism. We can think of it as being in the form of two layers; the outer layer represents the customs and issues that meet the eye like dress, manners, speech etc while the inner layer accommodates the religion, ideology and world view of the society. In principle the inner effects the outer.
How does culture influence the Muslim?
Anthropologists differentiate between ‘Shame Cultures’ and ‘Guilt Cultures’. What does that mean? Fundamentally, one may assume that people living in a ‘Guilt Culture’ associate acts against generally accepted norms as a personal fault for which they are responsible to whatever authority they relate. Protestants appear to be strongest in this type of culture. The great majority of people, however, live within a ‘Shame Culture’, to them it is not so much an offence to be guilty of sin, but rather the exposure of being found out with the resulting shame that it brings on themselves, their family, society or religion.
Muslims seem more preoccupied with maintaining ritual cleanliness rather than with what they may consider ‘small sins’ because of their non-biblical view of God, law, and man. They are quite unaware of their sin, what they are really subconsciously looking for is freedom from shame. Theologically with regard to our personal relationship with God this is detrimental we ought to repent for the sins we have committed, for they bring shame on God, and to think less of the shame of being found out.
Although we recognise and should be sensitive to the shame culture from which our Muslim friends come all cultures must submit to Scripture. Muslims should realise that sin is the trespassing of God’s law and the dividing factor between God and man.
What is contextualisation?
The idea of contextualisation was born when a new national and cultural awareness or consciousness emerged in the post-colonial era. Anything that smacked of foreign domination was suspect. Certain missiologists reasoned that the time had come for change. In radical contextualisation ritual forms, which are intrinsically Islamic were introduced. One does not go to church, but to the ‘Isa Mosque’, where the ‘followers of Isa (Christians) would meet after their ritual washing (wud’u) to offer ‘salat’, a somewhat Christianised form of the Islamic ritual ‘prayer’ on a Friday. Obviously they would cover their heads and follow the Islamic way of prostration. They might even chant the Bible reading in Arabic, of course! During Ramadan they would ‘identify’ with their Muslim neighbours by keeping the fast, or at least part thereof. Of course there is nothing wrong with fasting or even prostration in prayer as long as one does not create the perception that these Islamic forms are to be preferred to established ‘Christian forms’.
Should I use the Quran as a springboard for explaining the gospel?
Statements like “missionaries should use certain passages from the Quran as a springboard for explaining the Gospel” not only give credit to the Quran to be a divinely inspired book, but also reveal the fear that the Word of God has no appeal. We are all aware that Muslims accept and believe in the Quran and reject the Bible. This fact led to the suggestion that one should use the Quran to present Jesus from its pages. There are some very positive statements about Jesus in the Quran but one should resist the temptation to ‘prove’ the crucifixion and death of Christ from it. It would be a very ambiguous attempt, and can be done only by a ‘clever’ Christian hermeneutic, yet is this approach legitimate?
To quote Samuel Schlorff: “The Hermeneutical Crisis in Muslim Evangelism” “The Christian/Quranic hermeneutic assumes an essential agreement between the Quran and the Bible on many points. In so doing, it creates an authority conflict for Muslim inquirers and converts and for the emerging Muslim convert churches”……………. ….. “The fact is that commitment to Christ inevitably involves commitment to the authority of the Bible. When a Muslim inquirer is confronted with the claims of Christ, through the Scriptures, he is faced with a choice: he must either commit himself to the Bible and the Biblical view of Christ and forsake the Quran, or commit himself to the Quran and the Quranic view of Christ and reject the Scriptures”.
We may legitimately remind a Muslim that the book he believes in dictates faith in the ‘former Scriptures’ (i.e. the Bible) and that it has a lot of good things to say about Jesus but we should refrain from “preaching Christ from the Quran as the Quran constitutes no authority for a Christian! We must make this quite clear! The Isa of the Quran is not an extended or true image of the Jesus of the Bible!
Should I use Arabic terms?
Depending on the type of people we reach out to, the use of Arabic may be absolutely essential. But even in non-Arabic speaking countries, Muslims have been and are being trained in the Arabic language, for religious terms and rituals are normally formulated in Arabic. It is therefore definitely an advantage to know these and their meaning, so that we may make use of this knowledge when defining the meaning of a word or concept.
Care however, should always be taken for example we heard of a missionary, who, in a conversation with some Muslims, kept referring to Jesus Christ as ‘Nabi Isa’ (the prophet or messenger Jesus). On his mind was no doubt, the use of a familiar term in order to avoid ‘foreign’ terminology. At the end one Muslim clapped him on the shoulder approvingly, saying: “You are the first Christian, who admits that Jesus was no more than a prophet!” So the attempt to be accepted backfired.
We see the need for a selective use of Arabic terms, being aware that using ‘Injil’ for Gospel and ‘Nabi Isa’, ‘Musa’ or ‘Ibrahim’ is hardly more than an effort to appear friendly. One also should be fully aware that these do not necessarily convey a Biblical meaning. This applies particularly to ‘Nabi Isa’ and ‘Injil’.
While it may be quite normal for a Westerner to chat with someone from the opposite sex it may be considered immodest or even offensive in an Islamic setting. One should be careful not to expose a person of the other sex by being alone in a conversation with him or her. It is not recommended for a man to have a conversation with a woman, except perhaps in company.
How should Christian women dress in the company of Muslims?
This aspect is becoming of increasing importance in the Islamic world as more and more women cover their bodies with less attractive clothes. This view is expressed as a token of modesty designed to exclude any charm which might otherwise be expressed.
While Christian modesty does not express itself in such severe terms a Christian lady having contact with Muslims should consider dressing in ways which will not make her an object of attraction in men nor offend the cultural norms. Covered shoulders with half-sleeves with no low neckline and an acceptable hemline should be acceptable in most situations.
Should I avoid using my left hand?
The right hand is used for ‘clean’ activities such as eating, the left hand for ‘unclean’ activities such as cleaning after going to the toilet. This somewhat stigmatises the left hand. In many Eastern cultures eating is done with the right hand only, while the left hand is kept below the table. While Eastern hospitality is often considerate towards Westerners in providing relevant implements for use, one should be aware that if these are not provided the use of the right hand is appropriate.
What should I know concerning hospitality?
Hospitality is of great virtue to those of oriental origin and Muslims also. Accept hospitality when it is offered as to refuse it may be considered very offensive. If you really can’t eat or drink something for health or spiritual reasons, decline with an explanation.
When offering hospitality remember that Muslims are only allowed to eat meat which has been slaughtered by Islamic ritual. A Christian may buy food from a Muslim butcher when entertaining a Muslim friend but even then your Muslim friend may still feel suspicious and uncomfortable eating with Christians, as the pots and pans may have at some stage been used for preparing pork. Generally speaking a Muslim feels much more at ease in his own environment.
Are there other practical considerations I should be aware of?
A dog is seen as an unclean animal in Islam and patting a dog may be viewed with concern.
In certain cultures sitting cross-legged is considered rude and pointing ones foot (the lowest part of the body) towards a person is taken to be highly offensive.
Every considerate, polite and loving witness will prove of immense value by giving no unnecessary offence.
*A number of the above comments have been taken from ‘Muslim Evangelism’ by Gerhard Nehls and ‘How to witness to Muslims’ by Jack Budd.